Coronavirus: Ontario turkey producers struggle ahead of Thanksgiving

Click to play video: 'Thanksgiving sales key for Ontario turkey farmers’ bottom line amid pandemic' Thanksgiving sales key for Ontario turkey farmers’ bottom line amid pandemic
WATCH ABOVE: Turkey farmers are keeping a close eye on sales heading into the holiday. This year Ontario turkey farms were hit hard by the pandemic. Farmers are now doing their best to diversify their sales and products to turn a profit. Katherine Ward Reports. – Oct 7, 2020

Turkey farmers are keeping a close eye on sales this Thanksgiving season as many say people typically tend to buy their turkeys at the last minute, right before the weekend.

However, since the coronavirus pandemic started, the turkey industry has taken a hit.

Now that provincial authorities are asking for people to limit their social circles, some farmers say smaller gatherings could change how people shop for turkey.

“We’d like to get back to regular levels but it all depends on how this fall shapes up,” Sean Maguire, who works at Hayter’s Farm in Dashwood, Ont,, told Global News.

READ MORE: Canadians need to find safe alternatives for Thanksgiving amid coronavirus, experts say

For Maguire, turkey farming is a family affair. His grandfather founded Hayter’s Farm 70 years ago. In the beginning things weren’t always easy.

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“They definitely struggled. It was a lot of work getting the turkey industry on its feet,” Maguire said.

COVID-19 has created new challenges for Turkey farmers across Ontario like Maguire.

Brian Ricker is a turkey farmer in Dunville, Ont. who also chairs the Turkey Farmers of Ontario. He said COVID-19 has decreased the amount of turkey needed by restaurants, grocery stores, and delis right across the province.

Read more: Tam urges caution during Thanksgiving amid recent rise in coronavirus cases

“Our processors have told us that they need a lot less turkey than they used to,” Ricker said.

“So we have had to cut production here in Ontario by 17 per cent.”

In Canada, whole bird sales make up about 35 per cent of the turkey industry. Last year 2.5 million whole turkeys were sold at Thanksgiving and 2.7 million turkeys were sold at Christmas.

Farmers Global News spoke with said the demand for large turkeys has decreased significantly over the years. They said they think COVID-19 has been a contributing factor this season, adding people are opting for different cuts and smaller portions.

The trend, they said, suggests fewer people are around the table unlike years ago when many people would gather for Thanksgiving.

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READ MORE: How to celebrate Thanksgiving safely in Guelph

Butchers said if you are searching for a small bird under 10 pounds, you may already be out of luck.

Darren Devison is the head butcher at Royal Beef in Toronto and said the phone at the business is ringing off the hook with people searching for smaller sized turkeys.

“People are typically asking for the smallest turkey we have and unfortunately most of those are gone already,” Devison said.

“We are getting into more medium sizes like 12 pounds and people are starting to accept that because there is nothing else available.”

Maguire said they have been working to diversify their operation as much as possible, noting the last thing farmers want is product left over and sitting in the freezer.

“That’s money that we count on, we have to pay for product up front,” Maguire said.

“So if we sitting on the inventory for any period of time, it will have a negative effect on our total industry.”

Industry leaders said getting the calculations right for supply and demand will be critical to ensuring the industry can survive the changing trends.

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“If we keep moving forward and have an oversupply, then we decrease the amount of quota that’s handed out and that decreases the efficiency of the barns because they are running at half capacity,” Darren Ference, chair of the Turkey Farmers of Canada, said.

Meanwhile, Maguire said he and the family remain optimistic about the challenges they’ve been dealt.

“The family has been through many so we are going to lean on our traditions and experience and get through this one as well,” he said.

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